Commentary: Let’s Get Debates Right in Tennessee

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 19: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) stand onstage at the start of the Democratic presidential primary debate at Paris Las Vegas on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Six candidates qualified for the third Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020, which comes just days before the Nevada caucuses on February 22. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 19: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) stand onstage at the start of the Democratic presidential primary debate at Paris Las Vegas on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Six candidates qualified for the third Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020, which comes just days before the Nevada caucuses on February 22. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

You might be surprised to learn that I’m a veteran of the NFL and lettered at Penn State.  Lest you think I was a linebacker, let me explain the letter was for the debate team and the NFL stood for National Forensic League (established in 1925).  The name was changed in 2014 to the National Speech and Debate Association, presumably to avoid confusion with cadavers and coroners.

We now are in the season when, thanks to elections and candidate forums, debate briefly receives a flickering moment of public attention.  Let me take that moment to suggest ways to improve debates, hold candidates accountable for skipping them, and prepare young minds for greater critical thinking skills using debate.

Though I’m a big fan of traditional debate formats, I have mixed feelings about the joint press chats or town halls that pass for presidential debates.  Just once I’d like to see the Commission on Presidential Debates opt for a no-moderator format—only a timekeeper and a clash on a set topic.  A fact-checking team should have midway and closing segments.  Perhaps experienced collegiate debate coaches could offer summaries of who won and why.

Debates, even in the current mediated formats, can offer some valuable opportunities for head-to-head candidate comparisons, especially toward the middle and bottom of the ballot.  Unfortunately, that has become a spotty proposition in the upcoming election.  For example, the League of Women Voters and several other groups held online debates/forums in advance of the August primary in Knox County.  Congressman Tim Burchett and State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, both Republican incumbents, were invited but did not bother to show.  Local news did not think this a story worth mentioning.

Don’t hold your breath on many, if any, candidate debates in Tennessee congressional races or our U.S. Senate contest. Full-fledged debates appear unlikely, all to the loss of the voting public.

For this November’s election, Democratic nominee Renee Hoyos has challenged Burchett to a series of three televised debates.  Burchett trotted out his campaign manager to call it a non-starter and spout nonsense about defunding the police—something Hoyos never has advocated.  Hoyos did not formally challenge Burchett to debates when they first squared off in 2018, but she reports, “He just didn’t attend any events we both were invited to.” Then and now Burchett hides behind the ‘R’ on the ballot.

Don’t hold your breath on many, if any, candidate debates in our other Tennessee congressional races or our U.S. Senate contest.  Perhaps a few online forums or news chat shows will have head-to-head appearances by state legislature candidates, but full-fledged debates appear unlikely in many cases—all to the loss of the voting public, and to the shame or news organizations who should advance informed self-governance by doing debate (or debate refusal) stories.

On the broader point, speech and debate programs are incredibly valuable training for young minds.  Participants learn oral communication skills, confidence, listening, logic, research, and strategy.  Further, it can be a lot of fun.  I did both debate and speech events in both high school and college.

When I moved to Knoxville in 1999 to teach at the University of Tennessee, I also volunteered to coach a speech and debate squad at Knoxville College, a historically Black college that unfortunately in the past few years has suspended operations.  Those days at the dawn of the 21st century found me running practice sessions, cooperating with the University of Tennessee squad, driving a team van to tournaments, and judging several rounds of competition both within Tennessee and as far away as Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Columbus, Ohio.

Following those experiences, I proposed and taught for many semesters a First-Year Studies course at UT.  It was titled “How to Argue: without yelling or punching.”  It concluded with the students paired off in Lincoln-Douglas style debates, a growing area of participation in high school and college competition

Sadly, tournaments currently would be a logistical challenge as we slog our way through a pandemic.  The 2020 State Championship of Tennessee High School Speech & Drama League was cancelled due to COVID-19.  Once we eventually defeat the pandemic, our state should prioritize speech and debate programs.  Not only will it lead to a more thoughtful populous, but also give us an electorate that demands more from clashing politicians.